Review: “Rambo III” (SEGA Genesis)

In the 80s, tough, badass action heroes were all the rage, and no other onscreen action hero was bigger and badder than Rambo. With the release of Rambo: Last Blood in cinemas this weekend, the character has appeared in five separate movies, several of which spawned video game adaptations. Rambo III was released for the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive shortly after the U.S. launch in 1989, making it a fairly high-profile game early in the 16-bit console’s life. How does it hold up after 30 years?

Can you find Afghanistan on a map?

The story of the game essentially mirrors that of the movie, in that John Rambo wages a one-man mission to rescue his longtime friend, Colonel Troutman. Is any of this important? Is it not enough to have a game say, “Hey kid, you’re Rambo. Go blow some shit up”?

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“My bouffant hair is your worst nightmare!”

And blow shit up, you will. In addition to his trusty fully automatic (and infinitely-loaded) machine-gun, Rambo is armed with timed mines, his trusty bow with explosive-tipped arrows, and a knife. You swap between these secondary weapons with a simple button press, but the knife is pretty worthless, particularly considering that your standard gun never runs out of bullets. The manual implies that the knife is meant for sneaking up on enemies and killing them without alerting other enemies nearby, but the A.I. is dumb enough that shooting your gun doesn’t seems to make them any more responsive.

On the other hand, the explosive weapons are far more useful, which is why you have a limited stock of them. As a result, your main gun will be your go-to weapon. While it predictably shoots in whatever direction you happen to be running, one nice touch is that Rambo will spray bullets in multiple directions if you fire while standing still. This is quite helpful if you start to get swarmed.

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In Soviet Afghanistan, helicopter flies YOU!

Whatever happened to Zane?

Rambo III is technically a two-player game, but unlike its SEGA Master System predecessor, it’s not simultaneous. Instead, players one and two take turns playing through each level, competing for the best high score, but little else. At least both players get to play as Rambo this time. Who wants to play as some random, throw-away sidekick with a yellow headband named Zane, anyway? Younger brothers, that’s who!

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SEGA was collaborating with the Commies the whole time?! Say it ain’t so!

The six stages of Rambo III aren’t always pretty, but they do offer a bit of variety in the gameplay department. While some stages only require that you mow through a few waves of communist ass holes before reaching the end, others require that you backtrack and explore, searching for P.O.W.s or destroying Soviet weapons caches. Some enemies do annoyingly respawn when you backtrack, but for Rambo, there’s only one thing better than killing a commie, Soviet bastard: killing a commie Soviet bastard again! The exploration may be frustrating for those looking for a more typical run-and-gun, but it does break up the action and extends the length of what is otherwise a fairly short game.

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You get increasingly more points with the more communists you kill, so make sure that you kill every. last. one!

“Somewhere in war, there is supposed to be honor”

Rambo III was an early Genesis title and was likely impressive when it was released, but the game isn’t considerably pretty in retrospect. The stages are often a bit drab, with the exception of stage 3, which looks remarkably lush for a game set in Afghanistan. Running streams? Lush jungle brush? Its almost as if the developers skipped watching the movie and just created generic “war” environments. Rambo himself is also not outfitted as he was in the movie, either. Rambo’s character sprite has brown hair, green pants, and a red headband, while the character in the movie wore solid black, headband included. In fact, the character model looks to be more inspired by the Rambo animated series than it does any of the feature films.

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Rambo: the Animated Series starring adult versions of the Burger King Kids’ Club

The most impressive visual standout may be the boss fights, where Rambo uses his explosive arrows to take down Soviet helicopters, tanks, or combinations of the two. These fights can be quite tricky, but they’re not as hard as they seem if you’re patient and prioritize survival over getting your shots in. Some of the digitized images from the film were probably “wow” moments for the time, though they won’t blow anyone away today.

The game itself handles pretty well, though there is some slowdown when you encounter a large number of enemies at the same time. This mostly occurs in the later stages, where the difficulty really ramps up and Rambo III‘s gameplay starts to look like a horde mode with AK-toting communist zombies. (Is “communist zombie” redundant?) Fortunately, your bullets travel faster than those of your enemies, so escaping a large pack of Soviets is usually not impossibly difficult. But if you do get shot even once, you will lose a life, so focus on escape as best you can. Overall, I wouldn’t say that Rambo III is particularly difficult (on the lower difficulty levels), but you will need a few playthroughs to master it. You can also adjust the starting number of lives in the options screen, too, so max those out if you need a boost.

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Shoot your shot

“It’s a long road… when you’re on your own…”

While the audio of Rambo III isn’t bad, it is also not at all noteworthy. It would have been nice for the composers to replicate the iconic score from the Rambo movies, but as it is, the tunes are just adequate. Similarly, none of the sound effects are suspiciously absent, but none of them stand out, either. The machine-gun fire, explosions, and deaths are made up of mostly generic sounds, but they were certainly on-par with Rambo III’s contemporaries at the time.

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“Bitches leave.”

Is Rambo III worth a pick up today for retro collectors? Yeah, I think that it is. You’ll get a fairly good run-and-gunner with some memorable boss fights, plus you get to be Rambo. It’s also a licensed game, which means that it has never been re-released digitally nor included in any Genesis collections. It’s also not a terribly rare or expensive game to pick up, either. While it’s probably a bit overpriced at the moment with people trying to cash in on the movie and all, but you can easily pick up a cart-only copy for well less than twenty bucks. But if you’re looking for the best possible overhead run-and-gunner on the Genesis, you’re probably better off with Soldiers of Fortune.

This review is dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters gallant people of Afghanistan.

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This is actually the “Game Over” screen from the Master System version of Rambo III, but I just really liked it

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